What Is 'Life After Winning On Jeopardy' For $96,000, Alex?
Ken Jennings was declared Jeopardy's Greatest Of All Time by crushing his competition before his mental might (and buzzing hand agility) in a tournament this past week. But even Jennings tasted defeat in parts of the tournament, as do all Jeopardy champs at some point.
L.A.'s Michael Bilow was one of those who won on Jeopardy, multiple times. He even managed to earn a place in the record books with one of the highest-ever one-day totals: $57,198.
But what do you do after you're on the show? Here's how you get there in the first place, what the feeling on that stage is like — and what happens next.
It wasn't a cakewalk, even for someone who grew up playing Quiz Bowl in high school and college. There's an online test that you need to pass to move on to the in-person auditions.
He tried getting on College Jeopardy in 2007, making it past the online test to the audition stage — but he didn't get on the show. He made it to the auditions again, and once more, no dice. He made another attempt after moving from the Midwest to Los Angeles — and was back at the in-person auditions once more.
There's another test at this level — not just at your home computer. You also have to share some funny stories that host and beloved Canadian Alex Trebek can ask you about, and take part in a mock simulation of the actual game, complete with the dreaded buzzers.
Then comes the waiting. You're in the eligible contestant pool for 18 months. Just before his time as a potential quiz contestant was about to expire, Bilow got the call.
"I remember the Thanksgiving of 2014 thinking, 'My Jeopardy number hasn't been called. I don't think I'm ever going to audition again — there's no point,'" Bilow said.
Less than a week after getting home to L.A., Bilow's phone rang. He was about to be on Jeopardy.
Playing the game itself is fun, nerve-wracking, heart-pounding — and a bit traumatic, according to Bilow.
"It really is trauma to be there on the buzzer, living and dying with every clue, trying to get in before everybody else," Bilow said.
Being on the show is like being a professional athlete for a day, he added, and that first game is like starting your first NBA game.
"You are one of the three best people at your particular sport for the day," he said.
He credits his ability to remain calm to his experience doing improv comedy.
"Just going up on stage every week, for years, made it so much easier to stand there and feel powerful, and strong, rather than terrified — even though you are terrified," Bilow said.
Improv prepared him to be on stage and entertain people, and he took that mindset with him.
Bilow's own background is in computer science, and as you might expect, he put Jeopardy statistics to use as he played — from the odds of getting different rows correct, to where you're more likely to find Daily Doubles (the bottom two rows and the corners).
WHAT IT'S LIKE TO WIN
He was lucky to get a little more used to the game over time, winning three times in a row. It gave him a viral moment, as he bet big and had it pay off, resulting in that huge one-day total. His glee at the win resulted in a social media clip that got some traction online.
"There's a huge, huge tension release and joy — especially if you get Final Jeopardy and you're leading going into Final Jeopardy, and you know you have it right," Bilow said.
But he also felt that none of his wins were particularly satisfying for the audience. He credits his first win to all three contestants getting the Final Jeopardy question wrong. In his second and third games, he'd already doubled his opponents' scores, so Final Jeopardy didn't have any suspense.
WHAT IT'S LIKE TO LOSE
In his fourth game, when Bilow finally lost, his score was in the negative — meaning he didn't even get to compete in the final round.
But that's OK, he said. He always knew that he'd have to lose eventually.
"One of the things about Jeopardy is there's a huge upside if you win, and really not too much downside for losing," he said.
Due to that, Bilow decided to get more aggressive as he got farther behind — a go big or go home mentality. And unfortunately, he ended up going home.
As you might expect, Bilow's rewound and thought about answers he could have gotten right if he'd been thinking just a little differently. But he feels he was well prepared for his eventual loss. One thing that's helped: everyone else who's done the same thing.
"There's a big fraternity and sorority of Jeopardy contestants out there, and they're all really great people," Bilow said.
He's gone out to O'Brien's Irish Pub Quiz in Santa Monica, famed for being frequented by a lot of former Jeopardy contestants — but that experience just isn't the same.
"Part of the reason I liked being on Jeopardy was the competitive element of it — and it wasn't as much the element of pure trivia that appealed to me," Bilow said. "It is fun to answer really hard trivia questions with people, but it's not as much fun as having a really difficult and fair competition."
Teaming up with five other big-time Jeopardy winners just isn't as fun as competing against those people, Bilow said. It's the same reason that, despite being a show alumnus, he's not much of a Jeopardy viewer himself — though he did keep an eye on that big Greatest Of All Time competition.
"I'm very excited for Ken Jennings, but I think he's excited enough for himself," Bilow joked.
Bilow did have the chance to get back in that competitive spirit on the Jeopardy stage once more, playing in the Tournament of Champions. But he was taken out thanks to a miss on a Daily Double. Still, he's thankful for the experience and getting the chance to play with the caliber of contestants who make those special shows.
"You have somebody who understands perfectly your experience of being on Jeopardy," Bilow said.
Another thing that made his losses easier — getting to know the woman he lost to during his initial run, Kerry Greene. He noted that she does volunteer work for children living in foster homes, and he had the chance to catch up with her again at the Tournament of Champions.
Now in his non-quiz-competition life, he's using his graduate degree from UCLA as a data scientist and engineering manager at local software startup Factual. He doesn't think his life would be hugely different if he hadn't taken home $96,000 in game show winnings.
"I suppose if I had won 50 games or something like that, and become a big Jeopardy celebrity, maybe that would have been the catalyst for change in my life — but I think I'm pretty happy just being myself," Bilow said.
If you ever want to try your hand agaomst some Jeopardy champions, you can always head down to O'Brien's yourself, and you still have a chance to win something — there are prizes for teams with a Jeopardy winner on them, and prizes for teams without one. You can also still see Bilow on a smaller stage, co-hosting comedy talk show Dark Matters.